A Family Retreat in Touch with It s Surroundings
Energy-efficient construction, forest management and repurposed materials help create a comfortable, lovely—and green—second home in the Monadnock Region.
Four years ago, a couple from Maryland found the second-home site in New Hampshire they’d been looking for: 250 acres in Cheshire County, complete with a 1930s farmhouse on a hilltop. The couple’s first plan was to tidy up the property a bit, renovate the house and move in without making too many changes. However, the home turned out to be less than suitable for a number of reasons, and the renovation turned into a replacement. The result: a new and energy-efficient home.
The shingled, one-and-a-half-story, modern interpretation of a New England farmhouse—which has four bedrooms (plus a bunk room over the garage) in a fairly modest 3,200 square feet—now occupies roughly the same footprint as its predecessor. It sits amid hay fields, gardens and stone walls, and is surrounded by woods and views on all sides (especially Mount Monadnock to the south and Vermont’s Green Mountains to the west). The house also looks across a valley to another farmhouse—a vista that architect Sheldon Pennoyer, of Sheldon Pennoyer Architects in Concord, describes as “very European.”
The homeowners had vacationed for about sixteen years in New Hampshire before discovering the site. The hilltop property had been a poultry farm in the 1820s. Back then, it had been surrounded by open pastures. Over the years, those pastures had been largely overtaken by trees.
The couple’s original desire to make as few changes as possible to the house, which they found charming, was eventually overridden. “After looking at several different renovation schemes,” Pennoyer says, “it was determined that any renovation would be costly and, in some cases, costlier than new construction.”
The architects—including Jasmine Pinto, an AIA associate with Pennoyer’s firm, who was a key member of the project team—built several cardboard models of different designs to achieve the right combination of volumes for the site. The plan that was chosen included retaining a few features of the original house, including the existing foundation. However, initial excavations determined that the foundation lacked a footing.
“We decided in about a day that the existing foundation had to be rebuilt,” says builder Tim Groesbeck of Groesbeck Construction in Sharon. Luckily, both clients and architect took the situation in stride. “There really wasn’t a hiccup,” Groesbeck says, adding that the whole team worked well together throughout the entire project.
The surrounding property also offered both challenge and opportunity. Although the homeowners had initially planned to remove some trees to replace the failed septic system, the couple hadn’t expected to find a stand of rotted pines that had to be taken out.
Meanwhile, Pennoyer (who has experience in forestry management) noted a possible resource. “I told them there’s a beautiful stand of oak out there, and that we could get all the flooring for the house from it,” Pennoyer says. And so, according to the wife, “We started the adventure of logging.”
As trees came down, views appeared—in some cases, surprising ones. The homeowners hadn’t expected to see Vermont.
Designing from the outside in
Among the homeowners’ major goals for the property was that it respect the land and history. The new house should still look like a farmhouse and integrate with the surrounding countryside—its eventual hayfields, stone walls and views. The homeowners also wanted an unpretentious, easy-to-maintain home with both public and private spaces—areas for large as well as intimate gatherings. And the couple wanted the entire project to be as green as possible. All this was in accordance with Pennoyer’s approach. “I’ve always tried to simplify a building’s expression to achieve a calmness in architectural resolution. There is too much complexity to everything today,” he says. “Philosophically, I believe that we need to make our buildings as efficient as we can. The less energy we use to heat and cool our buildings, the better.”
Pennoyer began by designing from “the outside in,” he says. He wanted to maximize the views from the house and for the house to take advantage of its setting. He also needed to design the structure so it was strong enough and insulated enough to withstand the high, exposed location.
The resulting house has, in addition to the four bedrooms, a large kitchen, living room, dining room, screened-in porch and patio. A separate garage, joined to the main house by a connector, has additional sleeping quarters on the top floor. All the major living spaces allow for views of Monadnock to the south. The screen porch has mountain views to the south and sunsets to the west, and is situated to stay out of the line of sight from the rest of the house so it won’t be visible in colder months when it’s not used. The connector that joins the house to the garage creates an entrance courtyard that echoes a traditional New England farmyard, Pennoyer says.
Inside the house
Almost every room is designed with, as Pennoyer describes it, “spaces within spaces,” such as a window seat in a bedroom that you can curl up in and read a book. The living room, kitchen and dining room are spacious enough to accommodate guests while providing a scale that feels intimate. The rooms are connected but shaped to provide separation for gatherings of family groups. This is not an open-concept house. “Spaces within spaces” help achieve the owners’ goals of public and private space.
The clients enlisted Cameron Schwabenton, of Cameron Stewart Design in Charleston, South Carolina, with whom they had worked previously, to coordinate the interior design. Like Pennoyer, Schwabenton took her focus from the house’s surroundings, which she described as “calm and serene.” Accordingly, her palette incorporated neutrals—soft beiges and grays—punctuated by pops of color. “Blue in particular is a favorite of my clients,” she says.
She combined various antiques and original artwork with new pieces to create a lived-in, cozy feel. “We definitely wanted something that was comfortable and timeless, but fresh,” Schwabenton says.
One of the most striking uses of the clients’ artwork is a set of dark wooden carvings from Kerala, India, that are mounted over the couch in the living room, where they provide a graphic counterpoint to the soft, easy blue and off-white fabrics in the room. For these and other fabrics, Schwabenton used materials and textures that would wear well and allow for relaxed living.
Among the most appealing aspects of her design for this house are the soft, flowing, lined curtains in many of the rooms. These are decorated with a simple block-printed look that is a nod to the homeowners’ past travels in India. “The fabrics aren’t formal. They have scale and charm to them,” Schwabenton says.
As sources, Schwabenton used many local antique stores and providers (such as Cider Press Tile Co. in Keene). All new furniture pieces were custom created for the client using American fabricators. The clients were particularly pleased by the lighting design executed by Carol Crampton of Crampton Lighting Design in Baltimore, Maryland, and the light fixtures made by John Ramsey of Deep Landing Workshop in Chesterton, Maryland.
Elements of green
The house was designed with a high-performance building envelope, including double-wall construction in a twelveinch- thick wall. The team achieved an R-value (a measurement of thermal resistance) of 41 in the walls and 60 in the roof—well above even above-average R-values.
An efficiently built and insulated house was a must, given the house’s exposed position on the hill. “I don’t think we appreciated how windy it was,” says the wife.
A 5.5 kilowatt PV solar system was installed on the southfacing roof, and LED lighting was used to reduce electrical consumption.
An important element of the property’s overall design is a connector between the house and the garage. The connector serves dual purposes: as a covered pathway between the structures and as a reference to the entrance courtyard of a typical New England farm
Another green aspect to the house was the reuse of some of the materials from the original property. A number of the light fixtures and sinks are original, as are some of the granite slabs used outside the property. Oak trees on the property were used for flooring. This may not always be the most economical route, according to Groesbeck, but is nice to do if there is sufficient time and wood for the project. The harvesting process takes about four months from forest to floor, including two months in the kiln. “There’s something about using your own materials,” he says.
This property won New Hampshire Home’s Excellence in Green Design award for 2016, with the judges writing, “Pennoyer worked with the homeowners to develop a forestry management plan to enhance wildlife habitat, provide all the interior hardwood flooring for the new house and open views by creating additional meadows that had been lost through the years.”
Designing from the inside out
To integrate the house, land and views, and to create a pleasing outdoor setting, the clients hired Gordon Hayward of Hayward Gardens in Putney, Vermont. Hayward is known for his holistic approach: “I see garden design as integrating the people, the house and the land,” he says. He starts by talking with the owners, and by looking out from every major door and window to determine paths and view lines. “My job is to integrate the outside with the inside,” Hayward says.
In order to reference and respect the property’s past as New England farmland, he used straight stone walls (built with stone from the property by Deb Shelley of Shelley Landscaping and Masonry in Jaffrey) to frame views near the house as well as enclose the gardens and spaces near it.
One such space on the east side is the blue flagstone patio. “This side of the house is about breakfast, coffee and morning gatherings in sunlight,” Hayward says. Here he used a lot of annuals, in colors that would complement the colors in the house.
On the west side of the house, Hayward created a complex shade garden. “It’s the opposite of the east garden,” he says, “a little wild and all perennials. It’s designed to enliven the views and to introduce fragrance.” For the latter, he used purple-leaved snakeroot.
For the path to the front door, which also frames a view to a walled vegetable garden on the other side of the house, Hayward focused on the invitational aspects of design: “Entry gardens should say, ‘Welcome to my home,’” Hayward says.
For this, he used evergreens—including boxwood hedges and Stewartia pseudocamellia. The stewartia blooms in mid-summer, when the clients are most likely to be home. “Plants have roles in making and enlivening spaces for people,” he says.
Another, very different landscaping feature on the property that Pennoyer describes as a “folly” is a walled garden designed and built by stone artisan Dan Snow of Dummerston, Vermont. If you looked down on the space from above, you would see that the garden is shaped like a pumpkin seed. The walls help keep animals out and provide shelter from the wind. The construction is “doubled” at the base (meaning there are two wall faces with fill) and graduates to a single layer that, at the top of the wall, has open spaces between the rocks.
Such a construction serves a dual function. By inclination, Snow says, animals such as sheep are unwilling to scale a wall that looks unstable at the top (although this one is very stable). The spaces between the rocks at the top also serve the function of buffering and slowing the wind as it moves through the garden.
The garden has a cozy, almost hobbit-like seating area, with an organically curved roof that is a “sandwich” of materials, Snow says. A series of flagstones is laid over a wood support system; then, rubber sheeting is placed for waterproofing. Finally cobblestones are put down to protect the sheeting from the heat of the sun and harmonize the roof with the rest of the enclosure.
Although Snow has made an enclosed garden before (in fact, the homeowners saw a rectilinear one he had built in Vermont, which gave them the idea), Snow hadn’t made one in the shape of a seed. “It was almost an accident that the idea popped up,” he says. “We were talking about whether animals would be able to get in the garden and someone said, ‘If you just planted pumpkins, no animals would bother,’ and the idea went from there.” The garden was a success in its first year, producing a nice crop of tomatoes as well as other fruits and vegetables.
Snow noted that all the stones used for the wall are from the property—remnants from the fields that were reconstituted from rough pasture to mowable ground.
The draw of New Hampshire
Although the project had its challenges (morphing from a renovation to new construction and the exposed nature of the site), it was made easier because everyone clicked. “The whole team worked well together,” Groesbeck says. “It was cohesive, and the clients really appreciated everybody.”
The last sentiment is certainly true. “One of the best things about this project,” says the wife, “is how everyone made a project of this size work so well. We think about all those people whenever we are in the house.”
All that teamwork, and the attention to detail and place, paid off. In addition to the New Hampshire Home award, the project won the 2016 Honor Award at the American Institute of Architects New Hampshire (AIANH) chapter’s Excellence in Architecture Design Awards. The jury commented: “Careful attention to massing and carved forms was thoughtful and rigorous, and allowed for ‘more’ by doing less. We appreciate the restraint both in materials and attitude. Siting is sensitive and very successful.”
“The center of New Hampshire design is simplicity,” Hayward says, “the simplicity that draws people from the city.”
Whether by simplicity or scenery, this couple continues to be drawn to the Granite State. “I grew up going to camp in Vermont,” says the wife.
Her husband grew up in the mountains of North Carolina. For these reasons, the mountains of New Hampshire feel like home to this couple.
An inviting window seat in a bedroom is an example of the kind of “space within a space” to be found throughout the house.